Darius R. Booker, Morgan Camper, and Derek Jackson in “Gunshot Medley”
by Dionna Michelle Daniel
“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.”
This sentence has stuck with me since the first time I read Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen: An American Lyric. That sentence has been a jumping-off point and inspiration for the current play that I am currently developing.
I first encountered Claudia Rankine’s Citizen while a BFA at the California Institute of the Arts. That year, I was taking a class on hybrid writing with a bunch of MFA creative writers. Although I felt slightly out of place from my comfort of theater knowledge, I was determined to get my minor in creative writing. Even though Rankine’s Citizen functions as a hybrid text, at the time it wasn’t on the course reading materials. However, that didn’t stop it from being spoken about almost every other class. This was also around the time when there were the headlines of the black woman reading Citizen at a Trump rally. In the video, you see angry Trump supporters tap the woman on the shoulder, signaling that it is rude for her to not be complicit in Trump’s nonsense. It is rude for her to read. The woman’s response is one of the most epic things you will every see. She shrugs of the bitter rally attendees and continues to read her book. From that point on, it was clear to me that this book was a symbol of resistance and strength. I had to get my hands on a copy.
It’s funny how life happens. I began working at the Fountain Theatre in the Fall of 2017 and had no idea that Stephen Sachs had adapted a stage adaptation of the book. As a fan of this brilliant book and also a theatre nerd, I was excited to see this work brought to life and inhabited in the bodies of actors. I got my chance to see the performance at Grand Park on April 29th and needless to say, I was beyond moved. There is something about hearing those words spoken and coming from a black body that makes the text sink in that much deeper. The actors, all giving a beautiful performance, showed the pain & confusion that happens when constantly faced with microaggressions and systemic oppression. And when the lines, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background” were spoken, I was overwhelmed by the weight of this sentence. Felt the weight right in my chest.
This message of this book and the stage adaptation correlates to the work that I am trying to flesh out in my own writing. Currently, I am developing a Part 2 to my play Gunshot Medley. The second part will take place in the present day and I’ m most interested in the idea of what happens to the black psyche after being faced with the trauma of seeing so many killings of black men on our phone screens. When does it stop? When can we heal? And if we look at the black body as a vessel, how much can it hold before it snaps and breaks?
Dionna Michelle Daniel is the Outreach Coordinator at the Fountain Theatre
After taking a brief hiatus for the Passover holidays, our smash hit production of Chaim Potok’s The Chosenrestarts its critically acclaimed run this weekend. With every performance sold-out since it opened in January, this second and final extension continues to June 10th.
We caught up with actor Dor Gvirtsman as he prepared to leap back into the role of Danny Saunders, the brilliant and troubled son of the tzaddik Reb Saunders and destined to follow in his father’s footsteps as the leader of his ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community.
Where were you born?
I was born in Tel-Aviv, Israel, and grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, primarily in Mountain View. Mountain View is a delightful, quiet suburb whose flashiest and most famous resident is Google.
Where did you train as an actor?
I started acting when I was in fourth grade, but I would say my formal training began at the California State Summer School for the Arts in 2011. It was the first time I was immersed in a conservatory-style program, learning about and actively training in theatre, day in and day out. Being involved with that program the summer after my junior year of high school solidified my decision to pursue a degree in acting.
The majority of my acting training occurred at the University of Southern California. That was where I truly learned the craft of acting: breaking ideas down into techniques that I could polish and practice through exercises, scene work, analysis, and performance. My third year I spent a semester training classically at the British American Drama Academy in London. It was a delightful opportunity to build and polish my technical skills by studying and working on Greek plays, Shakespeare, and Restoration Comedy in one of the greatest theatre cities in the world.
How long have you been in Los Angeles?
Six years. I came down here to study at USC, and then I made friends, fell in love, and started working.
In The Chosen, which aspect of Danny’s character do you identify with most?
Danny and I share a desire to understand people. Danny is raised in an absolute, fundamentalist world. The Biblical texts provide astounding analytical insight into law, sociology, and even general insights into the human condition, but provide fewer answers about detailed interpersonal dynamics. Those who are closest to Danny are a mystery. His father is revered by his friends and neighbors, yet provides Danny with no direct guidance or advice on how he is to fill his large shoes. Freud provides Danny with the tools to start understanding how and why people do what they do, in more absolute, specific terms than the Golden Rule.
One of the reasons I love acting is because it gives me the opportunity to think like, behave as, and understand people different than I am. A character I play may make choices I would never make, but in order to play those choices truthfully on stage or on screen, I must learn to understand why they are being made. What Danny sees in Freud, I see in acting: The opportunity to make sense of the people and the world around me, to embrace the complexity of a world that is far from absolute.
Dor Gvirtsman and Sam Mandel
The difficult relationship between Danny and his father is key to the The Chosen. What’s it like acting opposite a partner who rarely speaks or looks at you?
The onstage life between Danny and Reb Saunders is a delicate balancing act. When we do interact, we each need to respond to what the other is doing in as thoughtful, specific, and vulnerable a manner as possible. This is not only for the audience’s benefit, but also for each other. It’s how we can communicate: If I know exactly what Steve means by his action, it is easier to respond, and vice versa. The rest is built on the trust that when we aren’t interacting, we are each forwarding our story in our own way. This is developed through conversations between the actors and with the guidance of our director, Simon. Simon’s eye it vital when we actors can’t see each other.
When we do finally get to look at each other, I find many of the denser ideas in the play give way to the human story: A relationship between a father and a son who love each other. Danny defends his father throughout the play, even through his confusion and fury. When Red Saunders and Danny finally speak at the end of the play (spoilers!), the complexities in their relationship seem to give way to one of the most basic things adolescents hope to hear from their parents: I love you, and I am proud of the adult you have become. Having only recently come into an age where I could share moments like that with my own parents, its tremendously emotional experiencing that on stage.
The play served as important trigger in your artistic life.
The Chosen was the first professional stage play I ever saw. I had seen, and performed in, school plays, but seeing The Chosen was the first time I saw theatre in the real world. They were using the medium not only to entertain, as school shows primarily do, but to ask real questions that pertained to my Jewish life and my prescient adolescence. It helped me regain confidence in my desire to act at a time when I was almost dead-set on giving it up because “that’s not what kids with actual friends do” in the mind of a young teenager. The Chosen was the right play at the right time, and it helped set me on my path to where I am today.
What’s it like being part of such a hit production?
It is a humbling, extraordinary privilege. I am touched and amazed by the fact that audiences continue to want to share their afternoons and evenings with us.
Deep into our run, we still have the pleasure to perform for sold-out houses. The jokes still land, the energy still changes in the room when we arrive at an emotional moment, and the role and the show provide new layers and moments to be uncovered. As we head into our extension, I’m starting to realize it may be a good long while until I have the pleasure of being a part of a show like this again. I’m thankful for every bite I get. It’s a little hard to not get sentimental about it.
What’s the most memorable thing an audience member has said to you after a performance?
I have gotten a few Brooklynites who come up to me after then show and told me they have seen and met some Williamsburg Hasids, and that I could pass for one. That is not only a fun premise for an Ocean’s Eleven style heist, but a profoundly moving comment to hear.
Even as a Reform Jew, the Orthodox world seems distant, and at times even foreign. It is often hard to reconcile the fact that people who are part of the same Jewish community as I am could see the world so differently than I do. Knowing that someone who is more intimately connected to the New York Hassidic community sees truth in Danny Saunders makes me feel like I have learned a little about a world I am not a part of. To me, that’s beautiful.
What’s it like working at the Fountain Theatre?
Oh, it’s tremendous. To me, working at the Fountain is a gift for a young actor. To get to work on a play of substance with people of substance who care about this art form is special. I recognize that. We had the luxury of a long rehearsal process, so we had time to play with this show and experiment with our characters and relationships. We had the extraordinary privilege to work with our director, Simon Levy. He is an artist as passionate as he is compassionate, a patient and specific director with a beautiful vision. I always felt listened to and cared for, as a person and as a professional. Atmospherically, it was great getting to work at a theater where the staff like each other and enjoy working together. It’s not obvious. Artists don’t always get along, and that warmth goes a long way in making the artistic process feel safe and supported. I absolutely understand how the Fountain has cultivated its excellent reputation.
Dor Gvirtsman is an unusual name for an actor. Why did you revert back to it after first changing professionally it to Dorian Tayler? What led to that decision?
Backstage at ‘The Chosen’
Dor Gvirtsman is the name on my birth certificate. It’s the original. Unfortunately, it’s not a typical “show business name”. People would ask me: What kind of a name is Dor? Dor, like a door? For years, people told me I would likely need to change my name if I want to be an actor. Gvirtsman has lots of consonants in a row; It wasn’t marketable. And I want to be an actor, so I ran with it.
People meeting me for the first time thought Dor might be short for Dorian. I’m a big Oscar Wilde fan, and I love the name Dorian, so that part was easy. Tayler came about as the result of my working at a summer theater program. The kids took one look at me and decided my name was Taylor. I thought it was odd, but interesting that the pure eyes of children decided this name was right for me. I liked the flow of Dorian Tayler: it sounded akin to the names of the English celebrities that I admired and were popular at the time.
However, in the past few years, the world has begun to change. We seem to be seeking a popular culture that reflects more of the population that consumes it. As a result, being your authentic self is becoming more celebrated. I thought, “If Saoirse Ronan could use her guest segment on Stephen Colbert’s show to explain how to pronounce her name, then there is a future for Dor Gvirtsman”. As more people in my professional acting life found out my real name, and didn’t run away in disgust and terror, I became more comfortable with the idea of using my real name in my acting career. When I was cast in The Chosen, I had the opportunity to join Equity. The application asked me what I wanted my professional name to be – I chose my authentic one.
It seems you guys in the cast get along well. What’s the backstage life like?
We get along fantastically well. It’s quite remarkable. We trust each other and love each other as artists and people. It made rehearsing this play a safe, special artistic experience, and it makes for a wonderful long run. This is a group of people I am excited to come in and work with every week.
On another note, we are a cast comprised of men spanning generations. John and Steve have had more experience in the industry than Sam and I. They will sometimes tell us stories about shows they’ve done and experiences they’ve had over the years, and it is delightful to hear and learn from their experience. We are all quite silly and irreverent for a cast of a show so full of ideas and tenderness.
Any plans after this long run of The Chosen finally ends?
I’m traveling back home to Israel to see my family and celebrate with them at my aunt’s wedding! After that, I want to dive right in to a new project. Any takers?
Greetings! I am Dionna Michelle Daniel and I am excited to announce that I have joined The Fountain Theatre as the new Outreach Coordinator. At The Fountain, I will be focusing on educational programming and community engagement.
In May, I graduated from the California Institute of the Arts with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting and a minor in Creative Writing. I am coming to the Fountain after a month-long run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival of my new play Gunshot Medley. Gunshot Medleystretches across the Antebellum American south through present day to weave a rich history of the Black-American experience, blending poetry and song to respond to the historical expendability of Black bodies and the lives lost to hatred, racism, and police brutality. At the Fringe it received four 5 out of 5 star reviews and ultimately became a crowd favorite.
While at The Fountain, I will also be working as a youth instructor teaching creative writing at the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory through CAP. Building a nurturing community for young artists and educating students is one of my personal missions, so I am excited to embark on helping expand The Fountain’s educational program, Theatre as a Learning Tool.
Theater that is rooted in social activism has always been a passion of mine. I believe that art, especially live performance, has the potential to dramatically change hearts and minds. Theater has the ability to plant the seeds of empathy, inquiry, and discussion. From those seeds, real social change begins.
Nora King is a California girl who doesn’t surf. She danced in school productions of The Nutcracker but admits she was “an unbalanced and quite chatty ballerina.” She earned a BFA in Acting from California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) then created a non-profit theatre troupe called Acting for Others, to raise support and awareness for charities through performance. These days, she now finds herself at the Fountain Theatre as Production Outreach Coordinator for Building the Wall, overseeing the ongoing post-show conversation series Breaking It Down.
The program Breaking It Down, she says, embodies her dual commitment to theatre and social action. “I have always had a passion to inspire change through theater.”
Fountain Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs agrees. “When the Fountain Theatre made the bold move to reschedule our 2017 season so we could quickly produce the world premiere of this controversial new play Building the Wall, we were sure of one thing. Patrons seeing it will want to talk about it.”
The post-show conversation series Breaking It Down was created to offer an ongoing platform for the dialogue to continue with audiences on a wide variety of topics. The first discussion featured playwright Robert Schenkkan.
As Production Outreach Coordinator, it was Nora’s job to reach out to a varied list of organizations and schedule dynamic leaders willing to participate in conversations with audience members following performances of Building the Wall. Topics range from immigration to prison systems to women’s rights to stand-up comedy.
To learn more about the discussion series and the young woman who oversees it, we subjected Nora to her own Q&A.
How did you get this job at the Fountain?
Funny story. I saw an opening for a position in The Fountain’s cafe. I sent in my resume. And a couple days later I got a call from Stephen Sachs about another position that may be a better ﬁt. And it is a much better ﬁt. My cooking skills are nonexistent.
What is Breaking It Down? How would you describe it?
Breaking it Down is a conversation series following performances of Building the Wall. These will be discussions with community leaders, non-proﬁt organizers, socially active performers, etc.
What do you hope to achieve with these post-show conversations?
The goal of Breaking it Down is to activate and inspire the audience. A big theme in Building the Wall is the power and responsibility of the individual. At this point in our country’s history, complacency is extremely dangerous. I want to empower the audience, leaving the theatre ready to inﬂuence change.
Has it been hard getting experts to agree to participate in the discussions? Or easier that you thought?
A lot easier than I thought. I was surprised with the eagerness in which people wanted to be involved. Which is very exciting! This also reassures me that there are inﬂuential people activated and ready to combat the inhumane policies our government keeps churning out.
Which conversations are you most looking forward to?
After researching each individual and their backgrounds, I am honestly very excited for each conversation. I think they will offer so many different perspectives as well as ways to help. So, all of them!
What role can theatre play in triggering social action?
Theatre has always been a reﬂection of society. Shakespeare’s histories are basically the People magazine of the time. To say theatre is merely for entertainment, is an ignorant concept. And to say the arts is unnecessary for a nation, is stupid. Sorry to be so blunt. However, the reason I dedicate my life to this art form is because of its inﬂuence on society. Theater supplies ethos. We are humans. We need to connect. We need to feel. I believe theatre can supply an up close look at stories you wouldn’t experience otherwise even though, in reality, they might be happening right next to you.
What has your experience been like at the Fountain?
Amazing! Something that drew me to the Fountain Theatre is its commitment to socially provocative work. There is certainly a sense of working towards a shared goal. Everyone is passionate and excited to be there, which is necessary for a theatre to succeed. I feel very honored to be joining The Fountain Family. Thank you Robert and Stephen for bringing this play to life so quickly. I think it is essential for people to see this immediately.
It was a sunny day and LA Stage Alliance was hosting LA Stage Day, a gathering of Los Angeles theater folk centered around inspirational presentations, workshops, and breakout sessions. So I ventured down the 5 to University Hills, just off the 10, where participants in small group discussions like “Leading Diversity on the LA Stage,” “New Media in the Rehearsal Room,” and “Blue Sky: What Are Your Dream Ideas?” were sharing best practices, brainstorming new ideas, and challenging their own assumptions about how theater works.
As part of a day geared around questions like how to engage new, increasingly diverse, tech savvy audiences, the playwriting workshop stood out for advocating the safest route to getting produced. Led by four men and one woman, “Play!: The 60-minute Everything-You-Need-to-Know-About-Playwriting-in-LA Marathon” offered such revelatory tidbits as “cast a name actor or no one will come see your play,” “every story has to have a protagonist and a resolution,” and “plays only get produced when they have small casts and one set.” Now these things are all well and good if that’s the kind of play you want to write, but what if the best actors you can get have impeccable training but aren’t names? What if the world as you see it or as you want to show it has multiple protagonists and locations, lots of people, and conflicts that don’t necessarily get resolved? What if you want to make art more than you want to sell tickets? What if you’re a woman?
Play reading at Playwrights Union
In search of more fertile ground for innovative new play development, I headed up the 101 to Silver Lake for a reading of Crazy Bitch, a new play by Jennie Webb, presented by The Playwrights Union. As if the theater gods had heard my cry, Webb’s 70-minute play has not one but four protagonists, one of which is a character called The Immortal Jellyfish who is described as 4.5mm wide and lives in a petri dish. And though the play, which is set in LA, deeply investigates questions of life and death, the actual plot is left unresolved. Asked to what extent her play was consciously created in relation to the commercialism of Los Angeles, Webb said:
I’ve lived here all my life but this is the first play I’ve set here. I just got tired of all the new plays set in New York and gave myself a challenge to set one in LA. But I’m not savvy enough to write what’s producible. I write what I write and I hope it speaks to someone. I’d rather write plays where a woman loses body parts or shoes start raining from the ceiling. I call it “domestic absurdism,” with domestic meaning everyday life, because I find that life is absurd, especially for women.
The Playwrights Union
In contrast to the male-heavy representation among speakers at LA Stage Day, a full five of the seven readings done that weekend by The Playwrights Union were by women. The Union, which began in 2009 as a meeting of interested colleagues in organizer Jennifer Haley’s backyard, hosts an annual February challenge to write a play in a month. Participating playwrights gather over a long weekend to read and talk about one another’s plays. They do another round of rewrites and then host a weekend of public readings with actors. Haley, whose own play The Nether recently premiered at Center Theater Group’s Kirk Douglas Theater, told me:
We have about thirty members, and there was a time when we had to recruit men in order to achieve parity. Right now it’s about even, but more women participated in the February Challenge that led to these plays.
Asked how her writing functions in relation to the commercial culture of Hollywood and the idea of what’s “producible,” Haley offered:
I’ve worked as a playwright in Austin, Seattle and all over the East Coast. Studying at Brown with Paula Vogel, I learned to play with both experimental and traditional forms. I think circulation in a variety of theater communities helps you look at different models… there are new Playwrights arriving all the time in LA, and it will be interesting to see if this influences the kind of work being done here.
Though many playwrights are drawn to Los Angeles to write for television, others come here to study and end up making the city their home. Brittany Knupper, a recent grad from the playwriting program headed by Alice Tuan at the California Institute of the Arts—just up the 5 from the Valley—talked to me about her first year living here as a writer:
A lot of people their first year out of school have an existential crisis. Maybe mine just hasn’t hit yet but it hasn’t been that bad. Then again I constantly feel like I’m in an existential crisis, so maybe I’m just used to it. At CalArts I felt like I wasn’t being experimental enough as a writer, but in Hollywood people think what I do is too experimental. LA is such an industry town: People are trying to do anything they can to make a connection. You can feel the desperation. It’s funky and weird and gross, and I kind of like how dirty and weird it is.
Knupper has found an artistic outlet in storytelling, a popular form of Los Angeles entertainment in which people gather in theaters, bars, and homes to hear individuals read stories, usually autobiographical, but sometimes fictional. These pop-up salons feature the work of playwrights, journalists, fiction writers, and essayists and provide writers with regular opportunities to present work and receive feedback from within a supportive community.
Because the nightmare of driving in LA keeps most Angelenos locked in their own neighborhoods, writers who want to reach a city-wide audience have to create communities like these, organized around the discipline rather than through established institutions. Jennie Webb and writer/mythologist Laura Shamas formed just such an association in 2009—the Los Angeles Female Playwrights Initiative—to coordinate efforts to get more plays by women produced on local stages. Webb related,
LA is almost pridefully inaccessible. We needed an organization that would bring women together and spread the word that women writers exist. We are focused on connecting artists to one another, supporting one another by going to see each others plays, and getting the message out that it pays to produce work by women.
LA Female Playwrights Initiative
Clearly LA is not lacking in women playwrights, yet a study done by LAFPI in conjunction with LA Stage Alliance revealed that between 2000 and 2010, only 20% of plays produced in Los Angeles were written or co-written by women.
Hopefully next year’s LA Stage Day will address the lack of gender diversity on our city’s stages. Organizers at the Alliance should start by asking more women to speak and conduct workshops and should include breakout sessions addressing the issue. For their part, producers need to recognize that the only way to appeal to new audiences is to tell stories in new ways, which is why I’m going to stay on the trail of the LA writing underground, where work by women—and experimental work at that—is flourishing.
Holly L. Derr is a writer, director, and professor of theater specializing in the Viewpoints & Composition, the performance of gender, and applied theater history. This post originally appeared on HowlRound. Holly is also a blogger for Ms., where she writes about theater, film, and culture. Follow her on twitter @hld6oddblend.